Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music

As some of you know, I am mad keen on classical music and have been going to concerts ever since I was a small boy who dutifully toddled along with the family to the annual Queensland Symphony Orchestra concert in the Maryborough Town Hall. The orchestra used to do an annual tour of the huge state of Queensland in a special train stopping in the major cities and towns to perform each night. It must have been a wearing trip. By the way, I sometimes fell asleep during the second half of the concert.

When I got to University in 1965 as a fresher I was volunteered to line up a day in advance to buy tickets for the Orchestra Youth Concerts and decided my father would be pleased if I attended and so bought a season ticket. By the second concert, I was hooked and have been a classical music fan ever since. I can still remember Tamas Varsary playing a Beethoven Piano Concerto wearing very polished patent leather shoes.

In 1986, I was reading the Philadelphia paper and saw that season tickets for the Philly Orchestra were quite reasonable. In my enthusiasm, I bought tickets for Marianne and myself for 24 concerts! Poor Marianne. By chance, my father came to visit for the first concert and he used Marianne's ticket. The first piece we heard was the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture conducted by Riccardo Muti. It was simply fabulous and my father was hugely impressed. 

Over time, I reduced the number of concerts since it is a two-hour drive in each direction. The concerts were held in the Academy of Music and eventually we got better seats in the front row of the amphitheatre which is on the top floor level with the chandelier. The acoustics are best up at that position. However, in 2001 the orchestra moved to the new Verizon Hall a block down the street. The new hall had severe acoustic problems and sounded like a bathtub. 

The orchestra went through a period where its artistic and financial survival was at stake and the new General Manager raised the price of tickets substantially. I stopped buying the season tickets and started to pick some afternoon concerts to attend each year. The long drive and parking issues just were getting too difficult. However, the best thing that happened to the orchestra was the appointment of Yannick Nezet-Seguin as the conductor. He is superb and the orchestra has returned to its former glory.

When the brochure for the season's concerts arrived last year, I noticed that for one weekend the orchestra would return to the Academy of Music. The program was attractive and I wondered if my health would be good enough for me to climb the steps to get to a decent seat. Fortunately, I  improved enough to feel confident to go so I bought tickets and managed to get two seats in the front row in a slightly better position than our earlier seats.

Years ago we had to climb a lot of stairs to get to the top level. As part of the Academy refurbishment, elevators have been installed that go all the way to the top floor. It must have been nostalgia day for many of the audience since we seemed to be young by comparison to most of them. As I was waiting for Marianne to return from the bathroom. I noticed an older lady sitting on a set of steps and she was having trouble getting up. I walked over and assisted her and I felt so good that finally, I was able to help somebody else stand up. 

Going down the steep steps to the front row was un-nerving but I managed it. Those with vertigo would find it difficult. Usually, the curtain would be open so we wondered why the curtain was closed.

The huge chandelier. In the background are the seats we used to sit in when we first started going to concerts at the Academy.

The curtain had been closed so that some of the features of the auditorium could be pointed out to the audience using lighting prior to the performance.

The concert got underway with a modern piece by a young Canadian lady named Vivian Fung. The piece was only about ten minutes long and it is called Dust Devils. I quite enjoyed it though Marianne said that after the concert there were some old ladies in the bathroom who were not too impressed.

Since 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, the orchestra is playing most of his works for orchestra this year including the 4th piano concerto. We had Yefim Bronfman as soloist and he gave a fine performance. He is a big powerful bloke, towering over the diminutive conductor and if you want to see how he can beat a piano into cowering submission, watch this Prokofiev. It's interesting to watch the musicians on stage nodding their heads to the music.

The piano was removed during the interval and the orchestra tuned up for the second half. Most of the 1986 orchestra members have retired or died in the intervening years, but the orchestra has retained a special sound, largely influenced by the dry acoustic of the Academy. There is very little reverberation so the string players have to adjust their sound to compensate. Rachmaninov was very impressed by this sound and declared this orchestra to be his favourite and his 3rd symphony was premiered on this very stage back in 1936. So it was a privilege to hear the piece in this concert.

It was a 'wow' performance and you will eventually be able to hear it since it was recorded by DG. The orchestra is normally excellent, but this was special and they knew it. The first thing I noticed was how loud the sound is in that hall. It has a visceral impact that is missing in Verizon Hall. The violins sound a little bright but the basses and cellos have a depth in the bass notes that sounds just right. They know how Rachmaninov should sound. I really enjoyed the performance and look forward to hearing the recording. I suspect this might be my last concert in Philly before we leave for Australia, and what a way to end.

This photo is for Robin who will recognize nearby Monks Cafe where we have been going for nearly 30 years to have mussels and Belgian beer. It's as good as ever. And of course, we can come out reeking of garlic which we can breathe over the poor patrons sitting next to us in the concert hall.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The tenth anniversary of my retirement

It's hard to believe that it is ten years since I retired on my mother's birthday and started blogging about what I did in my retirement. This is entry number 1045 so I have been averaging about 100 blog entries per year. Mum would have been 102.

 Let me first say that this has been the crappiest year of my life due to my health problems. On the other hand, it has been one of the best years of my life since I am so lucky that I am well on the way to overcoming those problems. I remember talking to Marianne in the car one day in July when we were driving to physical therapy and saying if it were a choice between winning the half-billion-dollar lotto or walking properly again, the choice would be easy. 

Today I walked to the lighthouse and back and felt wonderful. It's a mile in each direction. I have been jogging back and forth in the house and can do 1000 steps. Yesterday I carried in a box of wine. Marianne correctly observes that I have been self-obsessed this year and it's understandable. It's unnerving and dispiriting when you can feel your body going downhill rapidly and you don't know the reason why. On the other hand now that the IV IG cure is taking effect, it's so uplifting to feel my body gradually improving with minor victories virtually every day. I keep a daily journal that I send off to a Resident at Johns Hopkins and it's interesting to go back and look at my gradual progress. Yes, I won the lottery of being able to walk and stand up again. 

Unfortunately, there are others with similar problems who are still struggling and don't know the reason why. I was lucky to have one of the top Neurology hospitals in the world about 90 minutes drive away. The doctor who specified my IV IG treatment was the co-author of the paper that recommended using Immuno Globulin for treating statin-induced myopathy. If you know somebody with walking issues who also takes statins, tell them to talk to their doctor. 

 Enough of the medical stuff! Let me talk about what's planned for the year ahead. Marianne has her permanent resident visa and we hope to move to Urangan in Australia by the middle of the year. We are already packing and will put the house on the market soon. No other travel is planned so there won't be too many blog entries for a while. 

 One of the things we are looking forward to in Oz is decent bacon. The US has the crappiest bacon on the planet since it only has the fatty streaky bit. It's only taken 35 years, but we finally discovered a solution. I bought a spiral cut ham for $12 just before Xmas and we had a special retirement celebration brekkie of ham and eggs instead of crappy bacon and eggs. Mind you, a similar ham in Australia would probably cost $100 more.

The cast-iron pan on the right will definitely make the trip to Oz in one of our suitcases.

Sunrise. We will definitely miss living here.

And finally, some photos of my walk to the lighthouse this rather warm day. No snow or ice when the temperatures are in the 50's and 60's.

Each time I do this walk, the climb up the hill becomes easier.

The loose stones on the path can be treacherous and a few weeks ago I walked on the grass at the side. Today my legs are stronger and my stability and agility are much improved. I walked on the stones without any concern.

A bird-watching site just before the approach to the lighthouse.

And there it is, at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. We will miss living here.

A bit over a week later, we had a visit from a huge flock of blackbirds that settled in the trees around our house. There were thousands of them. The temperature was about freezing so I did not linger outside after taking the following video.